“Never Let Me Go” was something of a departure for the Japanese-born novelist (who’s lived in England since childhood): It combines Ishiguro’s trademark elegant prose with a decidedly science-fiction theme, set in an unfamiliar England of the not too distant past.
Sometimes, when two novelists sit around talking, interesting things can result. In the case of Kazuo Ishiguro and his friend Alex Garland, the result was a movie.
Ishiguro, the acclaimed author of “The Remains of the Day,” “When We Were Orphans,” “The Unconsoled” and other works, said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival that the film version of “Never Let Me Go” dated back to his regular lunches with Garland. He and Garland (author of “The Beach” and “The Tesseract,” as well as several screenplays) are London neighbors who habitually meet to talk about their work.
“Never Let Me Go” was something of a departure for the Japanese-born novelist (who’s lived in England since childhood): It combines Ishiguro’s trademark elegant prose with a decidedly science-fiction theme, set in an unfamiliar England of the not too distant past. Its central location is a school, and his three main characters are former students; but we gradually learn in the book (and the film) that this school is like no other.
Garland, who’s explored science fiction in much of his work, was a sounding board for the book’s ideas and a very early reader of the novel. But Ishiguro said that, despite Garland’s screenwriting expertise and his own previous experience with film (“The Remains of the Day” became a very fine Merchant/Ivory movie in 1993, adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), they didn’t discuss the idea of a movie until after the book was finished.
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“I try not to think about things like that when writing a novel — in fact, quite the reverse,” he said. “When I write a novel, I want it to be completely different from a screenplay. I’m very conscious of the difference, and I want novels to work purely as novels. Otherwise I don’t see how they’ll survive — why don’t we just all go to the movies or watch television.
“I try to always go for something … very interior, following thoughts and memories, something that I think is difficult to do on the screen, which is essentially a third-person medium.”
So he was surprised when Garland, after reading a finished version of the novel, said he’d like to try his hand at adapting it.
“I remember he wrote it really fast,” said Ishiguro. “I said yes, and it felt to me like the next day — he said: here, what do you think of this as a first go?”
He laughed. “It always surprises me, with ‘Remains of the Day’ and this one — when I finished this, I thought: it’s unfilmable. And then Alex comes and turns it into a movie in three days! It’s a bit dispiriting. I was trying to make it really, really literary!”
Despite the joking, Ishiguro is clearly thrilled with Garland’s screenplay (which he said changed very little from the initial draft to the filmed version) and with the final film. Asked to compare the experience with that of “The Remains of the Day,” he emphasized that both were “very positive” but he was more hands-on with this one.
“I was younger then, in my 30s,” he said of “The Remains of the Day,” “and very excited to be making a movie of my third novel.” Though he subsequently became good friends with the filmmaking team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant — he wrote the screenplay for the duo’s last film before Merchant’s death, “The White Countess” — he didn’t know them well at the time, and he wasn’t very involved with the process. “It was very much like this well-known and self-contained team turned up and made the movie,” he said.
As executive producer on “Never Let Me Go,” he was more involved. “This time, I’m older than the rest of the filmmakers — they see me as, I don’t know, a more senior figure. They’re more deferential and they ask me things. But I see my role as purely supportive.”
Though he spent time on set and saw a few rough cuts of the film, Ishiguro was nonetheless surprised by the strength of the performances when he saw the film’s final version — “not simply because they were so good,” he said, “but I felt in a funny kind of way that the characters had been made deeper. I thought, well, there’s only one of me, I couldn’t be expected to pay so much attention to each character as these actors did. I learned things about the motivations, the personalities of each of the characters.”
The film stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield — representatives, Ishiguro says, of a “brilliant” new generation of British actors. “I think they act in a different style from the older tradition. I’m not saying better or worse, just different,” he said. “It’s less based around the actual words. … They do have a lot of respect for the written line, but that’s only one of the things that’s happening at any given moment. Body language, facial expression, sometimes the line seems almost thrown away, they don’t mind stumbling.”
Ishiguro is at work on a new novel, and he’s watching with interest as a musical version of “The Remains of the Day” arrives on the London stage. (He saw a preview performance and notes the music is “fantastic — rather beautiful kind of period songs, rather than showbizzy songs, of that time between the wars.”) And he’s in ongoing discussions for a film adaptation of his noirish 2000 novel “When We Were Orphans.” But though he enjoys writing the occasional screenplay, he prefers to leave the adapting of his own works to other writers, like Garland.
“I wouldn’t want to try to adapt something of my own,” he said. “It would be like going back to school and doing all my exams again.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com